Reaching The Unmistakeable Salt Flats Of Bolivia; Salar De Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni, otherwise known as the world’s largest salt flat, is a place featured on most backpackers’ bucket lists. For me, reaching Bolivia’s expansive area of salt crust was the most anticipated part of my South American journey. Running over ten thousand square kilometers, and consisting almost solely of flat, white salt formations against bright blue sky, describing to you the impressiveness of the place simply won’t do it justice… but I’ll give it a go.
It all began on arrival in the town of Uyuni; a small and quiet community of Bolivians in the Southwest of the country. Sitting at 3,656 metres above sea level, stepping off of our coach in the middle of the practically empty streets is the first time I feel the thin air start to affect my body.
Despite having visited high altitude areas throughout Peru and Bolivia, our trip to Uyuni from Sucre has required an ascent of 800 metres, and it’s evident after fifteen minutes of lugging my backpack to a cheap hotel that I’m going to need to take it easy for the rest of the day so my body can adjust to less oxygen.
Nursing a mild headache and feeling very tired and short of breath, Dave and I make a quick visit to a pizzeria before burying ourselves under blankets for the evening in our basic but nice enough private room.
After weeks of researching good tour companies on the internet, and reading lots of horror stories around four-wheel drive accidents and drunkenly incompetent tour guides, we’ve decided to take our trip to the salt flats with Red Planet; a mid-range company in terms of cost but with mostly good reviews. So, wrapping ourselves in layers in preparation for chilly temperatures despite blazing sunshine, we begin our day not long after sunrise, excitedly setting off as passengers in a convoy of 4x4s.
The first stop on our agenda is a train graveyard on the outskirts of the town. Once used as regular transportation for minerals between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, now abandoned trains sit rusted in the middle of nowhere, their newly awarded purpose being a playground for tourists. Clambering up and across the roofs of the trains entertains us for a short time, before our thankfully sober tour guide gives us and six others a brief history and overview of the deserted trains. After this, it’s off to a small salt factory, to witness the process of the salt beneath our feet making it to kitchens as a packaged product. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t wait to get out on the salt flats themselves.
I don’t have to wait too long, as after a quick pitstop at a conveniently placed locals market full of handicrafts that are found everywhere in Bolivia, it’s time to pile back into our 4×4 and start the drive through almost blinding open space. Miles of white land meet directly with deep blue skies and our tour guide plays his latest mix collection of Beyonce songs as we stare out the windows, transfixed. At this point I’m simply going to show you some photos…
Impressive, right? Touring the landscape we also learn that Salar de Uyuni is home to 50-70% of the world’s lithium, something that the Bolivian government is hugely protective of by only allowing foreign businesses to be involved in the extraction as consultants.
Caught up in the unique environment we find ourselves in, it’s not long before lunchtime arrives. For this, we make a stop at Isla Incahuasi (Fish Island), which is in fact a huge mound of coral and gigantic cacti. Our tough pre-lunch walk involves circling the island and struggling to catch our breath in the high altitude air, but to see the salt flats from above makes it completely worth the effort. We’re rewarded with a lush picnic lunch of chicken, rice and salad which quickly refuels our drained bodies.
I’m starting to regret the fact that we’ve only opted for a one-day tour of Salar de Uyuni, rather than the more popular three-day tour, but having already booked a flight from La Paz to Santiago de Chile the following day, we’re on a tight schedule. Although we certainly make the most of our time, and the rest of the afternoon consists of driving to random spots and playing around with cliched but completely necessary photography illusions, a little like this:
Overall, our tour of Salar de Uyuni has completely met expectations and I’d happily recommend Red Planet as a great company to lead you on this experience if you’re considering it. If you’re able to, take the three-day tour that actually guides you across the border into Chile as a result and continue your journey into the Atacama Desert. Both of these places are simply incredible and unlike anywhere else I’ve visited on my travels. As for me, my next move is to board an overnight coach for a twelve-hour ride back to La Paz – ah the joys of being a backpacker!
If you’re planning on visiting Salar de Uyuni, or Bolivia in general, hit me up with any questions you might have below and I’ll do my best to answer them.